Fit For Purpose: The Evolution of Banyan Workspace
As the one year anniversary of the launch of Banyan Workspace approaches, co-founder Amy Shroff traces its roots back to the beginning and considers how its emergence onto Hong Kong’s coworking scene reflects a change in the nature of business today.
During the autumn of 2018, my husband Rasheed and I spent several weeks visiting numerous coworking spaces, looking for a home for our brand new distribution start-up. Rasheed had recently left his career of 20+ years working for a large multinational corporation, having been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, but the novelty of working from home was rapidly wearing away. Coworking had seemed the perfect solution, promising a combination of efficient office space and a corporate community. But despite seeing many well-designed, spacious offices with trendy coffee shops and bright breakout areas, they nevertheless left us feeling rather uninspired. We were told that this was inevitable; that a coworking space that houses different businesses must be, almost by definition, a blank canvas, with the ability to be something different for different people. After all, how else could a brokerage firm, a creative marketing company and tech start-up all coexist happily under the same roof?
But we were just a fledgling company, a two-person team, albeit with ambitions. We wanted to work in a place that lifted us up when we walked in, a place that reflected the things we were passionate about in business and in life; ethical business practice, social responsibility and philanthropy, a desire for beauty and warmth, and a deep and abiding love for our home city, Hong Kong. So we decided to create our own version of coworking. We envisaged a workspace with beauty, purpose, and the confidence to assume its own set of values and culture. We trusted that there would be enough people out there who shared these same values who would want to join us, whatever their area of business.
Looking back, the creation of Banyan Workspace seems almost like a predetermined path that we were meant to follow, although at the time we were simply drawn along by a series of coincidental introductions and meetings of minds. A casual conversation over dinner with family friends led to the discovery of an empty property in Quarry Bay; an old industrial warehouse that, despite its dilapidation, boasted soaring double-height ceilings and a stunning view. An informal meeting with the founder of local employment agency Fleximums led to her mentioning that she shared her office with a young up-and-coming interior designer, Lo Eli, who was searching for a big project to make her name. And, the biggest game-changer of all, we were introduced to Zoe Stevenson, a passionate ‘green warrior’ with a strong background in marketing and events, who was looking to re-enter the workforce after taking some time off to have children.
I think of Zoe’s joining us as the final piece of the Banyan jigsaw that made the whole picture suddenly become clear. Her passion for and dedication to environmental sustainability was both inspiring and truly enlightening, and we realised immediately that she was a natural fit with our own passion for social responsibility and giving back. She embraced a lifestyle that we respected and believed in wholeheartedly. Although we had always considered ourselves to be environmentally aware, Zoe opened our eyes to what we could and should be doing better every single day. She was (and still is) our guiding light when prioritising sustainability in Banyan’s design and operations.
Without having any premeditated scheme, we realised that our brand was creating itself before our eyes. We had started with the simple premise of creating the type of place that we would like to work in ourselves. This had evolved into a boutique workspace modelling sustainable luxury and promoting social purpose, a “home-office-away-from-home” where businesses could be empowered to embrace ethical responsibility. We had assumed that it would appeal to people like ourselves, a slightly older entrepreneurial demographic who were more drawn to a well-run, comfortable and socially-responsible office environment than they were to Instagram seminars, pool tables and beer on tap. But we were wrong. Without realising it, we discovered that what we had created actually resonated deeply with Millennials and Gen Zs.
On opening our doors in September 2019, we were proactively approached for a job by a young woman who had heard of us through mutual friends. Despite being unable to match her existing corporate package, Marie wanted to join us anyway, explaining that working for a company whose core values she believed in was more important to her than her remuneration. As kids of the ‘90s, we were amazed. The idea of someone turning their back on a secure, well-paid job to move to a cash-poor start-up is one that wouldn’t have been considered by most people even a decade ago.
But a new generation is entering the workforce and revolutionising the job market. They have been raised in an era where people are no longer expected to stick to one career for their whole life, resulting in an ongoing thirst for continuous learning and experience. Unable to see a realistic path to the same sort of financial security that our parents’ generation took for granted, such as getting on the property ladder, many of them have developed different priorities. They are frequently stereotyped by the media as “lazy” or “spoilt”, but they are just as ambitious and hungry for success as 20-somethings have always been. It is how they define that success that seems to have changed. Of course money is still important, but they also want to feel they are making a positive impact. They want to work for a company that supports, encourages and validates their personal principles, and to be part of the solution to the problems that they see in the world, not just another cog in the system.
Marie encapsulated this thinking, and we were humbled to see the genuine pride and enthusiasm with which she gave tours of the space to friends and clients, highlighting the small environmental details which they might otherwise miss. Of course, such a mindset is not just restricted to a demographic label. We soon realised that every person working at Banyan Workspace was initially drawn to it because they shared this desire to work for a company with a strong social purpose, no matter their age. Nancy is passionate about Giving Back, and postponed her planned early retirement to join a young business where she could share her wealth of expertise and contribute to Hong Kong’s future. Hilvin is also dedicated to the Hong Kong community, spending hours of her free time every week hand-making reusable fabric face masks to distribute in local vulnerable districts. It was immensely gratifying to realise that our faith in our original vision, the creation of a coworking space with its own heart and soul that like-minded people from different industries would be drawn to, was justified.
In the eleven months since we started operating, we are proud that Banyan Workspace is becoming known for its values as much as for its design and ambience. It has been recognised as Hong Kong’s most sustainable coworking space, and has partnered with four local nonprofits in what we believe is the first Giving Back membership donation scheme of its kind in the industry. Its library has hosted conferences for a wide array of business people, from the visionary eco-community Green Queen Biz to members of Hong Kong’s leading business think tanks. And despite launching in such a turbulent period, with Hong Kong undergoing significant political, economic and health crises, we are confident that our future remains bright.
Because if the current pandemic has taught us anything, it is the meaning of humility. Humanity has been forced to acknowledge the truth that our survival is dependent on respect for our planet and the creation of positive, mutually beneficial relationships with others. It is a lesson that many around the world are determined to take with them when we emerge on the other side of the pandemic, from politicians and business leaders to job-seekers and homemakers. We are proud that Banyan Workspace has taken its position in this movement, and we hope that the story of our evolution can inspire more companies to take the lead on ethical responsibility and #changingthenatureofwork.